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Boudu Saved from Drowning

Boudu Saved from Drowning
Criterion 305
1931 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 81 min. / Boudu sauvé des eaux / Street Date August 23, 2005 / 29.95
Starring Michel Simon, Charles Granval, Marcelle Hainia, Sévérine Lerczinska
Cinematography Léonce-Henri Burel, Marcel Lucien
Film Editor Marguerite Renoir, Suzanne de Troeye
Original Music Léo Daniderff, Raphael
Written by Jean Renoir, Albert Valentin from a play by René Fauchois
Produced by Jean Gehret, Michel Simon
Directed by Jean Renoir

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Boudu Saved from Drowning is now shown almost exclusively in film schools, but it still works as an amusing and slightly disturbing social fable. Its refreshing, laid back style is unexpected in a film from 1931 and helped establish Jean Renoir as a world-class director. Michel Simon plays a uniquely baffling character seemingly invented to tax the patience of a middle-class Parisian do-gooder - and to make the audience question their limited notions of charity and liberal altruism.


Parisian bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) is a good-natured fellow eager to do the right thing. When he sees the bum Boudu (Michel Simon) leap into the Seine, Edouard leaps to the rescue and puts the revived man up in his shop-apartment, against the wishes of his spoiled wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) and his Maid Anne-Marie Chloe (S&eacutre;vérine Lerczinska). Boudu takes Edouard's charity without a word of thanks and proceeds to abuse the man's hospitality in every way possible -- interfering with business, making a mess of the kitchen, and trying to seduce the females. Edouard has to put off his affair with Anne-Marie, as the nosy Boudu sleeps in an anteway blocking access to her room at midnight. But Edouard continues to feed Boudu and buy him clothing, expecting a grand rehabilition to occur at any moment.

At least part of Boudu Saved from Drowning is structured as a heavy-handed moral lesson. The poor homeless Boudu is ignored, shunned and discriminated against by everyone he sees. We're then introduced to a likely candidate for a good samaritan medal, a shopkeeper who immediately makes himself responsible for the life of the large, shambling bum with the wildly unkempt hair. Other Parisians take Boudu's attempted suicide as an opportunity for sightseeing, while Monsieur Lestingois' neighbors applaud his heroism and virtue. They're all for getting Lestingois a medal for civic valor, but they vanish at the first mention of helping the bum scooped from the river.

Where our expectations go wrong is in the film's impish refusal to make Boudu in the least bit deserving, or to reward Lestingois' charity with anything but patience-trying episodes. Boudu has no concept of gratitude and greedily eats his benefactor's food. He makes no effort to fit in to the household, still behaving like a vagabond in the park. He offers no help but makes messes wherever he goes. Lestingois offers more help and monetary assistance, which Boudo accepts without grace. He offers no help even when his presence is a hardship.

Lestingois really isn't a saint; he's carrying on an affair with his maid. That has to stop because the nosy Boudu is sure to spill the beans. But Boudo pursues the maid just as we've seen Lestingois dreams of doing in the film's funny prologue. There's nothing subtle to the bum's advances -- at one point he just hangs from a doorframe in front of the maid and wraps his legs around her!

The closest an American movie ever got to this show's theme is Good Sam with Gary Cooper, a movie about a good samaritan abused and scourged by the ingrates he tries to help. It's not completely successful, but it is kind of a reverse meditation on the Christian value of charity.

Lestingois tries to stay true to his idea of bettering Boudu, and puts both money and considerable patience behind the effort. His faith in the bum remains through any number of inconveniences and possibly even through the revelation that Boudu has seduced his wife Emma -- a pretty funny scene that almost convinces. But when Boudu uses Mlle Lestingois' pricey shawls and satin bedcovers to wipe shoe polish off his hands, it's just too much - Edouard has limits to his tolerance, and still values material things. A convenient plot device sends the story off to a different conclusion at this point.

What we're more likely to think is that Boudu is a dangerous maniac, a thoughtless and selfish lout who would be a gross liability in any situation. Lestingois might as well lavish his charity on an animal from the zoo. A hippo is cute in its own way, but they can't be housebroken. Today it's likely that viewers will equate Lestingois with a flighty liberal who needs his attitudes realigned. Lestingois gives away books to deserving-looking students and feels better for his good works. Is he just trying to compensate for his hanky panky with the maid? And despite his disdain for medals, is his main motivation to be thought a grand and superior person? We liberals need to remember that we're also capable of blind egotistism and vanity, even when being altruistic.

Jean Renoir really excels in this picture. His relaxed and dreamy Paris is a collection of pertinent details that now seem to have stepped out of a time machine. Lestingois observes Boudu through a telescope and we see him in a telephoto view, walking amid real Parisians. More importantly, Renoir finds an equally relaxed way to stage his scenes, which appear to be taking place in natural light in crowded rooms without any usual pattern of stagey closeups, medium shots and wide masters. We pick up the topography of Lestingois' shop-apartment only slowly. Places look lived-in and people behave naturalistically. Stylistically, the movie is far advanced for its year.

Renoir acolyte and future filmmaker Jacques Becker (Le trou, Touchez pa au grisbi) plays a man reading in a rowboat in a picnic scene.

Criterion's disc of Boudu Saved from Drowning isn't quite as pristine as other titles from the collection, but the 'fine grain print' source cited in the production notes is probably the best element in existence. The picture is a tad tight on top and a trifle grainy, but nothing to cry about. Anyone who has seen what's been available before will be thrilled. Boudo's hair evolves from a tangled rat's nest to a wild pile of waves. Instead of a blurry mess, the foot traffic in front of Lestingois' shop is as sharp as a tack.

The soundtrack is finally clear enough to let us appreciate the running musical motif played on a piano (all good bourgois homes have one, even if nobody can play it), then a flute, and sung by various characters.

Jean Renoir provides one of his introductions, limiting his comments almost exclusively to actor Michel Simon. A much later piece has Simon and Renoir reminiscing at a cafe table, and another interview has Eric Rohmer waxing rather academic over the film. A new video sit-down with Jean-Pierre Gorin is both thoughtful and amusing. An 'interactive map' of Paris locations is a fascinating feature that talks about the cultural significance of each site, as well as showing how Renoir cheated the bookstore to be where in reality there is a large public building. Christopher Faulkner's liner notes are actually a full essay on the film.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Boudu Saved from Drowning rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Introduction by Jean Renoir, Excerpt from Cineastes de notre temps featuring Renoir and Michel Simon, New video interview with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, Archival interview with Eric Rohmer, Interactive map of 1930's Paris, featuring locations from the film, essay by Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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